California Gov. Gavin Newsom Says He Won't Sign A Proposed Ban On Tackle Football For Kids Under 12

FILE - Bruce Bertram, 7, listens as lawmakers discuss a proposed bill that would ban children under 12 from playing tackle football in California Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Sacramento, Calif. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would not sign the bill, saying he is concerned about the health and safety of young athletes but an outright ban is not the answer. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli,File)
FILE - Bruce Bertram, 7, listens as lawmakers discuss a proposed bill that would ban children under 12 from playing tackle football in California Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Sacramento, Calif. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would not sign the bill, saying he is concerned about the health and safety of young athletes but an outright ban is not the answer. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli,File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California will not ban tackle football for children under 12 after Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom publicly promised he would not sign the bill if it were to reach his desk, blocking a proposal that had become a proxy for parental rights in a presidential election year.

“I will not sign legislation that bans youth tackle football,” Newsom said in a statement late Tuesday. “I am deeply concerned about the health and safety of our young athletes, but an outright ban is not the answer.”

It's rare for Newsom, a father of four now in his second term, to publicly weigh in on legislation before it reaches his desk. But his decision to quash the proposed ban on youth tackle football before it even got a vote in the Legislature could save him from questions on the campaign trail this year as he acts as a surrogate for President Joe Biden's reelection.

Beyond 2024, Newsom's decision could help his own national political ambitions as he would need the support of voters across the country where football carries significant cultural and social importance.

The proposal, which would have gradually banned tackle football for children under 12 by 2029, cleared a legislative committee last week and was poised for a vote in the state Assembly before the end of the month. But even if the bill were to pass, Newsom's pledge not to sign it — first reported by Politico — means there is little, if any, chance of it become law this year. While California lawmakers have the power to override a veto, they have not done that in more than four decades.

California already regulates youth tackle football, with Newsom signing a law that took effect in 2021 limiting teams to just two full-contact practices per week of not more than 30 minutes each during the regular season. That law also required youth tackle football coaches to have training on concussions and other head injuries.

Newsom pledged to work with lawmakers “to strengthen safety in youth football — while ensuring parents have the freedom to decide which sports are most appropriate for their children.”

“As part of that process, we will consult with health and sports medicine experts, coaches, parents, and community members to ensure California maintains the highest standards in the country for youth football safety,” Newsom said. “We owe that to the legions of families in California who have embraced youth sports.”

The proposal's author, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento, said Wednesday he would not bring it up for a vote.

“I do look forward to the Governor's invitation to work on ways to better protect our youngest athletes and keep them safe from repetitive heads hits which can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE),” McCarty said in a written statement.

Tackle football is the most popular sport in the United States, where TV ratings for the NFL dwarf all other professional league games. But concerns about the risk of brain injuries with the full contact sport could be contributing to a decline in participation.

The number of teenagers playing high school football in California dropped by 18% from 2015 to 2022 before a small increase in 2023, according to the California Interscholastic Federation’s participation survey.

Meanwhile, flag football has become increasingly popular — even being embraced by the NFL, helping it to become an Olympic sport for the 2028 games in Los Angeles.

The thinking behind California's proposed ban was to have children play flag football until age 12, which would give athletes about three years of playing tackle football before entering high school. Advocates say that would limit children’s risk of brain damage, which studies have shown increases the longer a person plays tackle football.

But the bill prompted strong opposition from parents, coaches and kids. Many attended a public hearing in the California Capitol last week wearing their football jerseys while asking lawmakers not to pass the bill.

Critics viewed the bill as a challenge to parental rights, with one parent going so far as to say it didn’t make sense for California to tell her she could decide what happens with her pregnancy but not what sport her children play.

Wednesday, football coaches, kids and Republican lawmakers gathered at the state Capitol to celebrate the bill's demise, with one child holding a sign declaring, “Let us play.”

“I never in my wildest dreams thought that this youth football debate would turn into a national parental rights debate. But it has. And you know what? I’m glad it has,” said Steve Famiano, who leads the Save Youth Football California coalition. “I'm glad we could use youth football to bring a broader scope to what is going on not only in California, but in our country.”